An Idiot’s Guide to Rotten Tomatoes


Recently, marquee releases like Suicide Squad and Justice League have caused an influx of a vocal minority spewing vitriol at Rotten Tomatoes, blaming them for the negative reviews on their site. Hating on Rotten Tomatoes because your favorite movie has a 46% rating is incredibly sad for a multitude of reasons, but today let’s focus on the fact that Rotten Tomato scores aren’t Rotten Tomato reviews — they’re aggregate scores from potentially hundreds of reviewers across numerous publications and websites.

If you’ve never really used Rotten Tomatoes before, that’s fine. I don’t blame you for not understanding this. And if you do occasionally use Rotten Tomatoes to decide what movie to see, but you don’t know how they arrive at their percentages, that’s fine, too. I’m mostly speaking to the people that see a bad Rotten Tomatoes score for a movie they like (or vice versa), and then head to the internet to complain about it and send death threats to the people that run the site. Not only are they upset about something that doesn’t matter, but they don’t even understand how the thing they’re upset about works.

There is literally a petition online right now trying to shut Rotten Tomatoes down because of the negative reviews they give. The fundamental ignorance this shows is astounding. With all of that in mind, I thought it might be beneficial to break down just how Rotten Tomatoes does work. And keep in mind that this all took literally less than five minutes of research, further highlighting that people’s stupidity is surpassed only by their laziness.


As stated above, when you visit Rotten Tomatoes and see a percent score next to a movie, that isn’t a review score given by Rotten Tomatoes. There are hundreds of media outlets that have been approved by Rotten Tomatoes, and they have certain criteria for accepting outlets. Each outlet writes their own review of a movie, and every outlet has a different scoring system. Some score movies out of five, or ten, or use four stars, and some outlets don’t actually associate a score at all. It’s up to the outlet (or more specifically, the writer of the review) to indicate to Rotten Tomatoes whether or not their review is positive or negative. So, one outlet might give Suicide Squad a 6/10, but decide that it’s a negative review. This would earn a “splat” indicator on Rotten Tomatoes. Another outlet might review Suicide Squad with 2/4 stars, but say that it’s a positive review. This earns a tomato, or “fresh” icon on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s hardly a science, but it’s the best way Rotten Tomatoes could come up with to place all review scales on the same level. It’s binary by design.

This positive or negative indicator obviously takes the nuance out of a film review, which is really the biggest benefit of reading criticism. So, Rotten Tomatoes also hosts a small snippet from each written review on their site, with a link to the full review. That way you can get a better feel for how each reviewer really liked a movie. So, a review might have a “fresh” icon next to it, but the actual text isn’t super positive. That would indicate that while the reviewer still found the movie to be worth watching, it’s with some caveats. Again, not a perfect system, but it gets the job done.


So how does Rotten Tomatoes reach their percent scores? Let’s look at an example. Above we see Iron Man 3. It’s sporting a 78% rating, which makes it “certified fresh.” However, that doesn’t mean the movie earned a 7.8/10. It means that 78% of the reviews list Iron Man 3 as positive, or a recommended watch. There have been 270 total reviews of Iron Man 3 from Rotten Tomato contributors. 211 have been positive, 59 have been negative. Thus, the 78%. Like I said, that doesn’t mean all of the 59 negative reviews absolutely hated the movie, just like it doesn’t mean the 211 positive reviews absolutely loved it. It only means that specific number of reviews were indicated to Rotten Tomatoes as positive or negative. There’s also a handy “average score” on a movie’s page. This gives a better indication of the actual average score of a movie, out of ten. For example, Iron Man 3 has an average score of 7/10. So, 78% or critics recommend the movie, but on average, the movie only scores a 7/10. That shows that while most reviewers would recommend the movie, either the positive reviews weren’t incredibly positive, or that the majority of reviewers were middle of the pack in score.

If you look at Man of Steel, it’s sporting a 56%, but still has a negative “splat” icon. That’s because a movie has to be reviewed positively by 60% of reviewers in order to earn “fresh” status — and 75% to be “certified fresh.” But because the average rating is 6.2/10, you can assume that while most reviewers don’t recommend the movie, the ones that don’t are still generally still more positive about it than you might expect. And it’s worth noting that the movie still has significantly more positive reviews than negative ones. Man of Steel was clearly a divisive movie.

Then there’s always the audience score, but I generally ignore these kinds of scores. Sure, it’s nice to know what “people like me” might think of a movie, but I’m not really like people like me. Reviewers are trained professionals who are paid to respond critically to something. In general, the only “normal” people who are going to review a movie online are the people that really loved it or really hated it. Plus, there’s always the chance that some people reviewing it haven’t even seen the damn thing. Not very trustworthy.


Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Rotten Tomatoes isn’t culpable in the slightest for a movie’s percent score. If you have an issue with scores being compared on this level or boiled down to a percentage in the first place, that’s fine. I’ll have that argument. But that isn’t what’s happening here. What’s happening is that people who don’t understand this system are wrongfully assuming that Rotten Tomatoes decided that Suicide Squad deserves a 32%, or that Rotten Tomatoes manipulated reviews to arrive at 32%, or that the 32% is the actual Rotten Tomatoes review. None of those are true in the slightest, which I hope is now abundantly clear.

So, why does this matter? Who cares if people are complaining on the internet? Shouldn’t I just be able to look the other way, and not let it affect me so much?

On the one hand, you’re totally right, person I just made up that knows way too much about what I’m thinking. I need to do a better job of not letting people’s ignorance get to me. But the reason things like this really grind my gears is that it’s an indicator of a larger problem. It’s people being willfully ignorant and shouting that anger and ignorance as loudly as possible. This is the same mentality that leads to people wanting to fly their confederate flag because it “celebrates US history,” or blame Obama for gas prices going up, or not being willing to acknowledge something Hillary Clinton lied about when the irrefutable evidence is presented to them. Sure, those issues matter a hell of a lot more than Rotten Tomatoes or Suicide Squad or movie reviews or me. But it’s all part of the same problem facing our society. The internet allows people to be the worst version of themselves with very few ramifications. Everyone is yelling their opinion into the echo chamber, and most of those opinions are based on absolutely nothing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone share an article on Facebook without having even read it. They see the clickbait title and if it fits into their personally biased perspective, they share. There’s no thought or effort or real, impactful opinion put into it.

If you don’t know about something, shut up about it. Hopefully that’s something we can all get behind.

I started writing this because I thought it would be fun to poke at whiny babies on the internet, and because people seem to enjoy my rants. But there really is a deeper issue here that’s much larger than Rotten Tomatoes and DC movies. All I ask is that you think about it the next time you’re about to post or say something. Do you know what the hell you’re talking about? If not, please shut up. I promise to do the same.

And if you want, you can read my personal reviews for Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman, and Justice League.

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